Archive for January, 2013

Two possible arguments for hydrofracking

January 31, 2013

Here in New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering regulations for hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas from deep strata of shale.  Like many people, I think hydrofracking is a bad idea [1].  Here is what it would take to change my mind.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Opponents of hydrofracking are worried about the environmental impact, especially on the ground water and our water supply.  Supporters say that, with proper regulation, environmental effects would be minimal.

Hydrofracking is a large and widespread global industry.   My challenge to supporters would be to point out the area of the world where the hydrofracking industry uses its best practices.   If the environmental impact there is acceptable, then it would be acceptable in New York state under the same conditions. [2]

The other situation in which I would change my mind is that if there was a big shortage of natural gas, and hydrofracking was the only way to get the gas.  I heat my house with gas, and I don’t want to be without gas in an upstate New York winter.  But that situation is the opposite of the situation today.

Thanks to hydrofracking, the world’s supply of natural gas is increasing and the price of natural gas is falling.   Purely from the standpoint of economic gain [3], New York state would be wise to sit on its supply of natural gas until the world supply is diminishing (relative to demand) and the price is rising.  The underground natural gas isn’t going to go way.  It is like money in the bank.  We should save it for a rainy day, when we can impose a hefty severance tax (as Alaska does for oil) without diminishing the demand.


World’s tallest skycraper to go up in 90 days?

January 31, 2013

China’s Broad Sustainable Building Corp., which uses prefabrication technology to erect buildings with incredible speed, has announced plans to build a 220-story building, more than half a mile high.   It would be the world’s tallest skyscraper, just slightly taller than the current tallest, Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Current world's tallest

Current world’s tallest

Construction was scheduled to start this month (January 2013) and the timetable was completion in 90 days, with 95 percent of the construction work being assembly of components off-site.

But I haven’t found any indication that construction actually has started or whether the timetable is still 90 days, or extended to 210 days, which still would be amazingly fast.

Erecting such a building would be an amazing feat, although some question whether the project is feasible or useful.

Click on the following for background.

Sky City One Postponed?

Chinese prefab skyscraper builder sets sights higher … much, much higher

China’s ‘Instant Buildings’: Just Add Labor, Fireworks and a Cow

Why China’s Sky City One Is a Bad Idea

Chinese firm erects 30-story hotel in 15 days

Chinese firm erects 30-story hotel in 15 days

January 30, 2013

A Chinese construction firm, Broad Sustainable Buildings, erected a 30-story hotel in 15 days—working around the clock for 360 hours.  The secret is prefabricated parts, assembled like the Erector sets of my boyhood.

Hat tip to Bill Elwell

A watchdog and iconoclast of the Internet

January 30, 2013

NameBase Book Index

CloudFlare Watch

My out-of-town friend Daniel Brandt for years was a one-person intelligence operation, compiling a data base on the Central Intelligence Agency, covert action and government conspiracies.  Later he became a critic of abuses of power by Google, Wikipedia and now a little-known company called CloudFlare.

nbsmHe created a searchable data base on the Central Intelligence Agency, covert operations and governmental conspiracies, based on indexing of more than 100,000 names when mentioned in over 700 books and many thousands of articles in newspapers and magazines.  If you wanted to know what there was to know on the public record about, say, James Angleton or Dan Mitrione, you could search Daniel’s data base and find pretty much everything that was publicly known.  Click on Olliegate for an example of how that worked.  Daniel put the NameBase index on a web site in 1995, with articles and book reviews on intelligence related subjects.  Click on Counterpunch for a 2003 interview of Daniel Brandt about NameBase.

wikwatchDaniel Brandt became a leading monitor and critic of Google and Wikipedia, and published his findings on his Google Watch and Wikipedia Watch web sites.  He pointed out, among other things, how Google keeps files on everyone who uses Google, recording every search and every transaction, and how Wikipedia runs articles that are not only inaccurate, but libelous, without liability.  Click on WikiScandal for the story of how John Seigenthaler, a respected civil rights lawyer and newspaper publisher, was falsely accused in a Wikipedia article of being a suspect in the Kennedy assassination.  The article doesn’t tell how Daniel used his Internet skills to track down the culprit, who was shielded by Wikipedia.  Seigenthaler forgave him.

scroogleAs an alternative to Google, Daniel Brandt started a service called Scroogle, which enabled users to do Google searches without revealing any personal information to Google.  Last year Daniel’s web sites were taken down by malicious DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks.  About the same time Google was finally blocking Scroogle more efficiently than it has before, so Scroogle was retired after a run of seven years.

Daniel is back on the Internet.  NameBase Book Index is the old NameBase web site, of interest mainly for the archive of book reviews and articles therein.  CIA on Campus is a collection of articles about the activities of secret intelligence agencies on campuses.  These articles are of more than historical interest.  Nothing has happened to limit the activities of intelligence agencies since these articles were written.

grab6Google Watch is a collection of cartoons and illustrations from the old Google Watch site.  The Great Google Book Grab  provides articles and information about Google and copyright issues.  Wikipedia Watch is a continuation of Daniel’s original Wikipedia Watch site.

CloudFlare Watch is a new site in which Daniel Brandt critiques a company that functions as a reverse proxy for web sites and offers some protection against DDoS attacks, but which he says is also unapologetic when cyber-criminals use CloudFlare to hide the location and identity of their hosting providers.

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my friend, but on matters we’ve disagreed about in the past, he has proven to be more right than I have.  In any case, his information is worth knowing and his ideas are worth discussing.

[Added 2/3/13]  Click on Web Watchdog’s new site for more about CloudFlare-Watch.

Eleven truths about U.S. airports

January 29, 2013

Seth’s Blog says U.S. airports provide the following negative lessons for managers of organizations.

  1. No one is in charge.  The airport doesn’t appear to have a CEO, and if it does, you never see her, hear about her or interact with her in any way.  When the person at the top doesn’t care, it filters down.
  2. Problems persist because organizations defend their turf instead of embrace the problem.  The TSA blames the facilities people, who blame someone else, and around and around.  Only when the user’s problem is the driver of behavior (as opposed to maintaining power or the status quo) things change.
  3. airport.skedThe food is aimed squarely at the (disappearing) middle of the market.  People who like steamed meat and bags of chips never have a problem finding something to eat at an airport.  Apparently, profit-maximizing vendors haven’t realized that we’re all a lot weirder than we used to be.
  4. Like colleges, airports see customers as powerless transients.  Hey, you’re going to be gone tomorrow, but they’ll still be here.
  5. By removing slack, airlines create failure.  In order to increase profit, airlines work hard to get the maximum number of flights out of each plane, each day.  As a result, there are no spares, no downtime and no resilience.  By assuming that their customer base prefers to save money, not anxiety, they create an anxiety-filled system.
  6. t1larg.tsa.cnnThe TSA is ruled by superstition, not fact.  They act without data and put on a quite serious but ultimately useless bit of theater.  Ten years later, the theater is now becoming an entrenched status quo, one that gets ever worse.
  7. The ad hoc is forbidden.  Imagine an airplane employee bringing in an extension cord and a power strip to deal with the daily occurrence of travelers hunched in the corner around a single outlet.  Impossible.  There is a bias toward permanent and improved, not quick and effective.
  8. Everyone is treated the same.  Effective organizations treat different people differently.  While there’s some window dressing at the edges (I’m thinking of slightly faster first class lines and slightly more convenient motorized cars for seniors), in general, airports insist that the one size they’ve chosen to offer fit all.
  9. There are plenty of potential bad surprises, but no good ones.  You can have a flight be cancelled, be strip searched or even go to the wrong airport.  But all possibility for delight has been removed.  It wouldn’t take much to completely transform the experience from a chore to a delight.
  10. They are sterile.  Everyone who passes through leaves no trace, every morning starts anew.  There are no connections between people, either fellow passengers or the staff.  No one says, “welcome back,” and that’s honest, because no one feels particularly welcome.
  11. No one is having any fun.  Most people who work at airports have precisely the same demeanor as people who work at a cemetery.  The system has become so industrialized that personal expression is apparently forbidden.

via Seth’s Blog.  Hat tip to Boing Boing.

Collision test: 1959 Chevy vs 2009 Chevy

January 29, 2013

The video shows a head-on collision between a silver 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a gold 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air.

Given the changes in automobile construction over 50 years, which car do you think survived the collision better?

Hat tip to Bill Elwell

Vested interests in mass incarceration

January 28, 2013


Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow about how young black men are crushed by the war on drugs, both through discriminatory law enforcement and by loss of legal rights as ex-felons.  Unfortunately the federal government’s policies in the past 30 years have created a powerful vested interest in continuing the status quo.

alexander.m.newjimcrowAlexander said that if the United States were to return to the incarceration rates of the 1970s, a time when many liberals said rates of imprisonment were too high, it would mean the release of four out of five people currently behind bars today.  That would threaten the jobs of the more than 700,000 Americans employed as prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers and other prison personnel.   The criminal justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2006, she wrote; if four out of five people were released from prison, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

Privatization of prisons means that there are wealthy individuals with a stake in continued mass incarceration.  This is politically important.  Prison guards unions in California campaigned against the referendum to legalize medical marijuana.  Private prison corporations lobbied in favor of the Arizona proof-of-citizenship law aimed at unauthorized immigrants.

Criminal justice jobs in California alone

Criminal justice jobs in California alone

The existence of a powerful Incarceration Lobby is the result of public policy going back to the Nixon administration and the 1970s drive to “de-fund the left.”   Conservatives in the Nixon administration thought that their opposition came not so much from poor people, who would not be poor if they were capable of organizing on their own behalf, as from social workers, public health nurses, guidance counselors and others in the helping professions who advocated for the poor.

The Nixon administration established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which provided federal aid for local police departments.  It also advocated, unsuccessfully, a guaranteed annual income, which was intended to help poor people while removing the welfare system’s disincentive to work.  This later became the Earned Income Tax Credit established under the Clinton administration.  I think both these ideas were good on their merits, but they were the beginning of a trend to diminish spending for the helping professions and to increase spending for law enforcement and incarceration.

Things were not always as they are now

Things were not always as they are now

Michelle Alexander picked up the story with the Reagan administration.   Ronald Reagan, like Goldwater, Wallace and Nixon, campaigned against two stereotypical figures—the filthy, drug-abusing, draft-dodging hippie, and the idle, drug-abusing, criminally-inclined young black man on the street corner.  Yet Reagan’s war on drugs did not go after dope-smoking college students.  It was aimed almost entirely at the black ghetto, based on the insight that most white people are skeptical of claims of anti-black discrimination.

At the time Reagan announced the war on drugs, many state and local police departments did not consider illegal drug use a top priority.  The Reagan administration changed this by means of huge cash grants to law enforcement agencies willing to make the war on drugs a top priority.  The size of disbursements was linked to the number of drug arrests.  The Pentagon offered military equipment, including grenade launchers and Blackhawk helicopters, to local police departments.   Funding for these programs increased under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  As with other federal grant programs, this was too good an offer for most local governments to refuse.

Another financial incentive was established in 1984, when Congress allowed federal law enforcement agencies to retain the value of any assets seized in drug arrests—the drugs themselves, drug-making equipment and conveyances used to transport drugs—and state and local law enforcement to retain 80 percent of the assets’ value.  Property or cash could be seized on mere suspicion, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing.  Nobody need be charged with a crime; indeed, the person could be found not guilty and the property still subject to forfeiture.   This proved highly lucrative, and was a major incentive to continue the war on drugs.

The Obama administration increased federal grants for drug law enforcement twelve-fold—not because there was any evidence of an increased need, but as part of the economic stimulus program.  The program enabled a certain number of police officers to keep their jobs in a period of economic austerity, as a cost of ruining the lives and futures of a certain number of poor young black men.

Alexander advocated a scaling down of the law enforcement aspect of the war on drugs, and its replacement by drug counseling, job placement and other programs to help young drug users.  I agree with her, but I think the prospects for any such program are poor in a situation of economic austerity.  If we had a high-wage, full-employment economic as in the 1950s and 1960s, few would object to allowing the rising tide to lift all the boats.  As it is, it is more of a lifeboat situation.  More jobs for ex-offenders will be perceived as fewer jobs for everyone else.


My definition of democracy

January 28, 2013

My definition of democracy is the right of the people to suffer from their own mistakes rather than being forced to suffer from the mistakes imposed on them by others.

Drugs: crime, punishment and race

January 27, 2013


This graphic, which illustrated a two-part series of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2008, shows how the war on drugs targets African Americans.

Click on If you’re arrested for drugs, you’re more likely to get a second chance if you’re white for the first part of the series.

Click on In Cuyahoga County, you’re more likely to get a plea deal if you’re white for the second part.

How race discrimination became legal again

January 27, 2013


Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, showed how racial discrimination has returned to the United States in the guise of the so-called war on drugs.

Young black men, and black people in general, are singled out for searches, arrests and punishment based on their race.  Surveys show little difference between drug use by white and black Americans.  Yet the vast majority of people in prison on drug charges are poor young black men, and the vast majority of black people sentenced to prison are guilty only of drug use.

Then by virtue of their criminal records, blacks convicted of drug use become second-class citizens.  As felons, they become ineligible by law to serve in the armed forces, to receive federal housing, aid to education or public assistance.  In some states, they lose the right to serve on juries or to work in many fields requiring occupational licenses.  Very often they lose the right to vote.  Moreover, while it is illegal with few exceptions to discriminate against people in hiring, renting or lending on the basis of race, it is perfectly legal to refuse jobs, apartments or loans to convicted felons.

This is no small matter.  Alexander pointed out that 80 percent of Chicago’s black male work force are felons.  Most black felons are guilty only of drug use, a victimless crime.  Yet they can go to prison for life for drug use, based on one conviction and two counts on another conviction.  Prior to 1988, according to Alexander, the maximum sentence for mere drug use was one year in prison.

alexander.m.newjimcrowShe said the war on drugs was part of a backlash against the victory of the civil rights movement.  Through the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing leaders such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan argued that the real problem was not poverty or racism, but lawbreaking.  They said the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King and the sit-in demonstrators legitimated violent crime and the rioting by poor black people in large American cities from 1964 to 1971.  When President Reagan announced the war on drugs in 1981, his target was the poor black neighborhoods.   Every President since Reagan, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has continued or stepped up the war on drugs.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable and warrant-less searches and seizures.  Civil rights laws prohibit applying a different legal standard to blacks than to whites.  But this protection was broken down, court decision by court decision.  Police officers are entitled to stop and frisk individuals on the street, or motorists in their cars, based on their personal judgment, provided the decision is not based solely on race.  And it is up to the individual to prove that racism is the motive, which is impossible unless the police officer comes right out and admits it.

Police have the same discretion in home break-ins.  A typical drug search involves a SWAT team breaking down a door in the middle of the night, throwing in smoke grenades and pointing guns at everyone in sight, including children and young people.

It doesn’t matter if 90 percent of the searches are of black people, even though black people are not by any measure 90 percent of illegal drug uses.  The Supreme Court has ruled that statistical disparities are not relevant in search and seizure cases.  You have to prove the individual search was motivated by individual racism or a policy of racism and, in a Catch-22, you do not have standing to subpoena records to provide discrimination unless you already have proved discrimination.

The same applies to statistical disparities in sentencing and in everything else.  Barack Obama, who was not a poor young black man, admitted to using illegal drugs in his youth, as have Al Gore and Newt Gingrich.  If they had been arrested and charged, they would not have had political careers.  I’ve never used drugs myself, but I’ve come across a number of people in my life—all of them white, and including many newspaper reporters—who have.

Applicants for public housing are barred if they have criminal records.  Tenants are expelled if any family members or visitors are involved in drug use, whether on or off the premises and whether or not there is any evidence the tenant knew about it.  This is a policy that dates from Bill Clinton.

Police have the right to seize cash, automobiles or houses if they can show they have reason to believe the property was involved in drug use.  At one time they had free rein to take property and use the proceeds for the budgets of their departments.  Now there is an “innocent owner” defense, but the burden of proof is on the owner.  If your property is seized, but you are not charged with a crime, you have no right to a court-appointed attorney.

Now it is true that these abuses of police power fall on middle-class and white people, and not just on poor black people.  Abuses of power are not self-limiting.  But being subject to police abuse, going to prison and being cut off from the opportunity to work or to function in society ever after is a typical experience and expectation of young black men in large American cities.

And it also is true that there are a lot of things wrong in poor black city neighborhoods, including violent crime, that arise for other reasons.  But the war on drugs is not a solution or part of a solution.  It is a problem that makes other problems worse.

To sum up:  It is legal to single out young black men for searches, arrests and prosecution provided you don’t say it is because they are black.  And it is legal and in some cases mandatory to bar them from access to employment, housing, education and federal benefits, and from military service, jury service and voting, which are the defining characteristics of citizenship.

Click on The New Jim Crow for Michelle Alexander’s summary of her book in Mother Jones.

Click on What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs for a report by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones.

Click on Stopped-and-Frisked For Being a F**king Mutt, for an an audio recording of a routine encounter by New York police and a young black man, along with commentary in The Nation.

Click on Drug, Alcohol, Tobacco Use Broken Down By Race, Ethnicity for statistics from the U.S. government’s National Study on Drug Use and Health.

Click on Race, Drugs and Law Enforcement for a report on U.S. drug enforcement by Human Rights Watch.

Click on The trouble with “colorblindness” and Baltimore: casualty of a failed drug war for earlier posts of mine.

Sita Sings the Blues

January 26, 2013

Nina Paley created this lighthearted animated feature film in 2008.  It mixes events from the great Indian epic The Ramayana, with historical commentary by Indian shadow puppets, blues songs by Annette Hanshaw and scenes from Paley’s own life.

I enjoyed it a lot, although it doesn’t do justice to The Ramayana.  The epic is longer than the Christian Bible or all the Star Trek episodes that have ever appeared on TV or in the movies, and I have never attempted to read the whole thing, but I greatly enjoyed William Buck’s translation and abridgement.

There’s something very sunny and good-natured about the Indian epic, as compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey, at least in the translations I’ve read.  In the Greek epics, the gods are all-powerful but indifferent to human welfare except for certain individuals who happen to gain their favor.  The siege of Troy follows a tragic script established by the gods that no individual can defy.  In the Ramayana and Mahbharata, in contrast, the gods are well-disposed to human beings, but subject to absent-mindedness and a propensity to make binding commitments they later regret.

The Ramayana’s war between the demons on the one hand and the humans, monkeys and bears on the other is caused by the willfulness and pride of a single individual, the demon king Ravana.  At the end, Rama slays Ravana, but then mourns his death.  With his 10 heads, 20 arms and 20 legs, nobody was so perfectly demonic as he was, Rama laments.  You don’t get this in the Greek epic, as when Odysseus kills Penelope’s suitors.


How to lengthen (or shorten) your life

January 26, 2013


This chart from the January issue of Scientific American provides a way of thinking about healthy and unhealthy habits.  David Spiegelhalter, a professor of risk assessment at the University of Cambridge in England, has developed a unit of risk measurement called a “microlife,” which is 30 minutes of an average person’s life expectancy.

It’s a good way to think about your habits, and to motivate yourself to adopt good habits.

Sitting on the sofa for four hours straight will subtract an hour from your expected life, but you can make that up by exercising vigorously for 20 minutes.  If you exercise for 20 minutes, you’ll add an hour to your life expectancy, according to Spiegelhalter.  But if you exercise an additional 40 minutes, you’ll gain only 30 minutes in life expectancy, which is a net loss—unless you like exercise.

Current research indicates that having a moderate alcoholic drink once a day will add 30 minutes to your expected life.  But if you take two more drinks, the gain will be canceled.   It is the fourth drink that will shorten your expected life.

Spiegelhalter very properly cautions that these are averages, and that not every individual will react in the same way.  Winston Churchill, according to a biography I’m reading, never went very long without a drink or a smoke.  I would say he was a high-functioning alcoholic.  Yet he lived to be 90.  He was in his late 60s during his first term as Prime Minister (1940-1945) and was 80 when he stepped down from his second term (1951-1955).  But that doesn’t mean that you or I could live as he did and be able to function as he did.

This is all about “chronic” risks—the things you do that affect your life expectancy in the long run.  Spiegelhalter gave an interesting TED talk on “acute” risks—the things you do that affect your odds of sudden death.


My favorite web logs

January 25, 2013

Today is my third anniversary as a blogger.   When I started, I conceived of my web log as primarily a way to have on-line conversations with my circle of friends about subjects I’m interested in.  As it turned out, only a few of my friends were interested, but I’ve made the acquaintance of other people in distant places.

blogger_in_heaven_1153685To celebrate, the anniversary, I’d like to share links to my favorite bloggers.  I divide them into two categories.  The Star Bloggers are journalists, paid bloggers and professionals who comment on subjects on which they are experts.  The Kindred Spirits are my peers—amateurs like me who think they have something to say.  I think anybody who finds my blog of interest would also like them.

I keep my Blog Roll as a page in the upper right corner of my blog.   It is subject to change, but here is how it stands today.


Glenn Greenwald on security and liberty. Glenn Greenwald is an American civil liberties lawyer who for years was a solo blogger and now writes a daily column for The Guardian in Britain.  I admire him for his hatred of injustice and his independent mind.  He judges the Obama administration by the same high standards as he judged the George W. Bush administration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates posts daily for The Atlantic magazine about popular culture, politics, the African-American perspective and his own life. His posts are interesting, and so are the well-moderated comment threads.

Rod Dreher | The American Conservative . Rod Dreher posts daily for The American Conservative magazine mainly about moral and social issues. He is a cultural and religious conservative who lives in his small hometown in Louisiana. I don’t share his political or religious creeds, but I am concerned about the same things he is. Like Coates, he writes interesting posts, and presides over interesting, well-moderated comment threads.

Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic . Conor Friedersdorf posts almost every day for The Atlantic mostly on politics. His own perspective seems to be mildly conservative and libertarian, but he is critical of all political factions who fail to meet the test of common sense and basic human decency.

naked capitalism. Yves Smith is a Wall Street financial consultant. She and the contributors to her blog are both outstanding investigators of political and financial corruption, and critics of conventional economic wisdom.

writer's block cartoon

ClubOrlov. Dimitri Orlov is a Russian-born American citizen who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and sees the United States heading in the same direction. He posts every Tuesday about signs of collapse, how to survive collapse and the benefits of a simple life and mutual cooperation. I’m not sure his predictions will come true, but I am sure that the United States can continue as it is, and his thoughts have merit independently of his predictions.

The Agitator. Radley Balko performs a great public service with this web log which is devoted mainly to abuses of police and prosecutorial power. He is an example of a libertarian who is a much more staunch defender of basic Constitutional and human rights than most of us liberals. If you read his blog, you’ll see that the United States is not as free a country as most middle-class Americans assume it is.

Matt Taibbi | Taibblog | Rolling Stone. Matt Taibbi posts every few days for Rolling Stone magazine mainly about financial and political corruption. He doesn’t dig as deeply as Yves Smith and her team, but his work is solid, independent of party and faction, highly readable

The Big Picture: Macro Perspective on the Capital Markets, Economy, Technology and Digital Media. Barry Ritholtz is a shrewd Wall Street analyst who posts daily on a wide range of subjects. His blog is full of interesting charts and links.


Marginal Revolution – Small steps toward a much better world. Tyler Cowen and his friend Alex Tabarrok are professors of economics at George Mason University whose view of the world is more conservative and comfortable than mine. I read their blog party to get a perspective that is different from my own, but mainly for the many interesting links on subjects I know little about. Cowen is one of the most erudite people I ever came across, and I get the benefit of his erudition.

Making Light. Patrick and Theresa Neilsen Hayden are editors for Tor science fiction books. They and their friends post every now and then on a wide variety of subjects, but what is most interesting are the links in the upper left of their web log.

The Dish | Andrew Sullivan. Andrew Sullivan is a gay, Catholic, British-born American citizen who is both a self-described conservative and an admirer of Barack Obama. He has been blogging for more than 10 years and many famous bloggers look too him as a kind of elder statesman. He and his staff post daily on a wide variety of subjects. I read his blog to get a perspective different from my own and because of the links to subjects I am not familiar with.


Unqualified Offerings: Looking sideways at your world since October 2001. “Thoreau” and his predecessor Jim Henley are physics professors in California who post almost every day with wit and wisdom about politics, science education, life in academia and the passing scene.


Psychopolitik: Random thoughts from a big angry negro. “B Psycho” in St. Louis posts with great insight every couple of weeks from a libertarian/anarchist perspective on politics and the passing scene

BlogTruth: Observations from a student of life. “Atticus Finch” and his pal “Holden” are young businessmen in Atlanta who post every few days on politics, the passing scene and, with great frankness, their personal lives. I think the blog lives up to its title; I think “Atticus Finch” is interested in knowing what is true as against parroting a received opinion

Class War in America: the Politics of Socioeconomic Class. John Pennington in San Francisco writes thoughtful essays every few days on topics related to economic justice.

simonandfinn | random things of interest…sometimes involving cartoons. “Melissa” is an artist, writer and cartoonist in Toronto who posts comments and cartoons every week or so about philosophy, the environment and the passing scene. Like me, she is an admirer of Bertrand Russell. Simon and Finn are two of her cartoon characters, but her philosophical cartoons star a character named Ernie.

Robert Nielsen | Economics, Politics and Religion. Robert Nielsen is an intelligent and well-informed young economics student in Ireland who posts every couple of days, usually to debunk economic or religious dogma.

New NY 23rd: Discuss the Politics, Economics and Events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District. Rich Stewart, a retired school teacher in Yates County, N.Y., writes and links about political issues affecting New York’s 23rd congressional district, which takes in the thinly-populated Southern Tier of counties along the Pennsylvania line, as well as some of the Finger Lakes area. His posts deserve a wider readership than just the citizens of that district.

The Deliberate Observer: both eyes open…. “Chico Marx” in the Twin Cities puts up links every few days to interesting articles.

Reddotsg’s Blog“Reddotsg” is a blogger in Singapore who posts every now and then about events in Singapore and the world.  I like the idea of having a connection with someone in a country I will never visit.  [Added 1/26/13]


Women in combat roles a truly bad idea

January 24, 2013

Departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will issue an order lifting the ban on women in combat roles in the Army and Marine Corps.  This is a very bad idea—a triumph of ideology over reality.

Click on Get Over It!  We Are Not All Created Equal by Captain Katie Petronio for the Marine Corps Gazette for the reasons why.

Or click on War is not a game by blogger Erin Manning.

GOP becoming the party of disenfranchisement

January 24, 2013

Republican-controlled legislatures in key states that voted for Barack Obama are considering proposals to rig their electoral system against Democrats, urban voters and members of minority groups.

Richie_MAPRepublicans in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio want to allocate their states’ electoral votes by congressional district, instead of giving all the electoral votes to the Presidential candidate who wins a majority statewide.  While this doesn’t seem unfair on the surface, the result in the previous election would have been to give a majority of these states’ electoral votes to Mitt Romney instead of Barack Obama.  That is because the congressional districts are drawn so as to dilute Democratic, urban and minority representation and give the advantage to Republican, rural and white voters.

Such proposals are only surfacing in states carried by Obama.  Republicans are content with the winner-take-all system in states where Romney won a majority of the vote.

Each state’s electoral votes are equal to their representation in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  The Virginia state senate has reported out a bill that would award the state’s electoral votes by congressional district, and the two remaining votes not to the candidate who won a majority of Virginia voters, but the one who won the largest number of districts.  Under this system, Obama, who won 51 percent of Virginia’s vote, would have got only 4 of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.

Meanwhile the voter ID laws and all the other voter suppression measures remain on the books.   It is true that what the Republican leaders are doing is not nearly as bad as the literacy tests, the poll tax and the other ways in which African-American voting was suppressed in the Jim Crow era.  It is true that nobody is being murdered for exercising the right to vote.  But the present vote-rigging and vote-suppression laws are intended to serve the same purpose—denying representation to minority voters.

This represents intellectual bankruptcy on the part of the Republican Party.  If they had a plausible plan for achieving peace and prosperity, they would win votes of African-Americans and urban dwellers.  By adopting their present tactics, they let the Democrats off the hook.  All the Democrats have to do to win the urban and minority vote is to not be Republicans. (more…)

Dr. King’s dream vs. Obama’s drones

January 23, 2013


In October 2011, 16-year-old Tariq Aziz attended a gathering in Islamabad where he was taught how to use a video camera so he could document the drones that were constantly circling over his Pakistani village, terrorizing and killing his family and neighbors. Two days later, when Aziz was driving with his 12-year-old cousin to a village near his home in Waziristan to pick up his aunt, his car was struck by a Hellfire missile.  With the push of a button by a pilot at a US base thousands of miles away, both boys were instantly vaporized—only a few chunks of flesh remained.

Afterwards, the US government refused to acknowledge the boys’ deaths or explain why they were targeted. Why should they? This is a covert program where no one is held accountable for their actions.

via People to People Blog.

Tariq Aziz had as much right to live on this earth as Trayvon Martin or the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Murder is murder, whether it is committed with a firearm or a killer missile, or whether by someone acting alone or acting under cloak of governmental authority.

John Brennan, who was President Obama’s chief adviser in drawing up his drone kill lists, is now the President’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency.   Ron Wyden, the Democratic Senator from Oregon, has written to Brennan and to the heads of other government agencies requesting information on the legal justification for the drone killings.  He also requested a list of countries in which the U.S. government is conducting drone killings.  So far he has gotten no response.  The information Wyden requested is hardly a matter of national security—unless you regard the people of the United States as an enemy.

Barack Obama was sworn in to his second term as President of the United States using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible.  Dr. King in 1967 called the United States the leading purveyor of violence in the world today.  Honoring the legacy of Dr. King would mean a dedication to peace and social justice.  It means more racially-integrated killer strike forces.

For his second term, President Obama apparently has made a decision to stand up to the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which is a good thing.  But he continues to be a champion of the real holders of power in this country, especially the secret military-intelligence establishment and the Wall Street financial establishment.

Click on John Brennan vs. Sixteen-Year-Old for the source of the quote on the People-to-People Blog.

Click on Senate hearing for killer-drones master for more by Nat Hentoff.

Click on US military says Martin Luther King would be proud of its weapons and MLK’s vehement condemnations of US militarism are more relevant than ever for more from Glenn Greenwald.

If only Obama’s deeds matched his words

January 21, 2013

President Obama, say what you will about him, is a outstanding speaker, both in style and substance.  His second inaugural address was characteristic.  He connected the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and of President Lincoln’s second inaugural with the struggles for women’s rights, black civil rights and gay rights.  His speech was, as usual, wonderfully balanced.  He offered comfort to the marginalized without attacking the successful.  He performed his usual feat of walking through a minefield, rallying his supporters without offering any obvious opening to his opponents.  If all I knew about the President were his speeches, I would have voted for him.

Unfortunately, I also know his record—the drone strikes and kill lists, the bailout of Wall Street, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations which would subject U.S. worker, health and environmental laws to a corporate-dominated international tribunal.  Most of my friends are liberal Democrats, like me.  When I mention these things, they seem momentarily disturbed, then recover their equilibrium and ask:  What about the Tea Party?  What about the NRA?  What about the crazy religious fundamentalists and right-to-lifers?

The fact that Obama is such a great speaker, the fact that his words have the power to stir me, gives me all that greater a sense of betrayal when his deeds are contradictory to his rhetoric.  But rhetoric matters.  His articulation of liberal ideals brings them out of the margins and into the center.  It is not nothing.  It sets a goal of those who come after him to follow.

Click on Inaugural Address by President Barack Obama for the full text of his speech.

Click on Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall if you’re not sure what the President meant by these words.

If Martin Luther King were alive today…

January 21, 2013

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be leading protest marches against President Barack Obama during Obama’s inauguration ceremony today.

Dr. King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

He protested the war policies of President Lyndon Johnson, even though Johnson was manifestly a lesser evil than Richard Nixon or George Wallace.  Today he would be protesting President Obama’s global military interventions, his kill lists, his bailout of Wall Street and his continuation of a war on drugs that results in mass incarceration of black men.

Here are links to commentary on Dr. King’s legacy.

Don’t You Dare Conflate MLK and Obama by Glen Ford for the Black Agenda Report.

How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Marion Wright Edelman for Huffington Post.

The Radicalization of Martin Luther King by Antony Monteiro for the Real News Network.

MLK’s vehement condemnations of US militarism are more relevant than ever by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian.

The harm that stereotypes do

January 21, 2013


I read about a test given by experimental psychologists to black students.  Half the students were simply given the test, and the other half were told, before taking the test, that white students on average did better on the best than black students.  The first group did noticeably better than the second group.  The same experiment was done with white students, except that the second group was told that Asians did better than whites.  The same disparity occurred.

This kind of stuff really matters.  There is such a thing as being a victim of prejudice by others, and there is such a thing as being prejudiced against yourself.  Arguably the second kind of prejudice will hold you back even more than the first, if you don’t know you have to fight against it.

Click on The K Chronicles for Keith Knight’s home page and more cartoons like this.

Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon

January 20, 2013

Dr. Martin Luther King preached this sermon on Feb. 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

It was exactly two months before his murder on April 4 in Memphis, Tenn.

Click on The Drum Major Instinct for the text of the sermon.

The trouble with “colorblindness”

January 19, 2013

I’m currently reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  She puts together a lot of things which I sort-of halfway knew, but whose significance I did not fully realize until I read this book.

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

I knew that the enforcement of drug laws was aimed primarily at poor black people.

I knew that the “war on drugs” was carried out in disregard of basic civil liberties.

I knew that primarily as a result of the “war on drugs,” huge numbers of young black men are in prison.

I knew that conviction of a crime entails loss of basic rights, including, in many states, the right to vote.

But it took Michelle Alexander to make me see how this resulted in a disenfranchisement of a large segment of the poor black population.  Black people who’ve been convicted of a drug crime can be barred from employment and bank credit, or from voting, just as when segregation was enforced by law.

Like many white people, I have always thought, and still think, that Americans should strive to be “colorblind”—that is, to treat people as individuals, regardless of their color or ethnic background.  But to Michelle Alexander, “colorblindness” has a very different meaning.  To her, it means the pretense that racial prejudice and racial discrimination do not exist.  It means, for example, that police can stop and frisk every young black man in a poor neighborhood, so long as they can say they are doing it for reasons other than race, and that the courts and politicians can ignore the disparity.

Alexander says that maybe someday the United States will be colorblind in the good sense, but we should not pretend that this day has arrived or will arrive anytime soon.


Click on these links for more about racial discrimination in “colorblind” America.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs, a report by Andy Kroll of Mother Jones on racial discrimination in employment and the implications of Michelle Alexander’s book.

Stopped-and-Frisked For Being a F**king Mutt, an audio recording of a routine encounter by New York police and a young black man, along with commentary in The Nation.

Overcoming Racial Discrimination , a comprehensive roundup of evidence of racial discrimination, including statistics and the experience of black and white testers.

Racial discrimination continues to play a part in hiring decisions, for a report on how white job applicants with criminal records had a higher success rate than black applicants with the same qualifications and clean records.

Gun laws and psychiatric surveillance

January 19, 2013

If you live in New York state and go to see a therapist about anger management problems, there is a possibility you may lose your deer rifle and go into a police data base of potentially dangerous people.

New York’s new gun-control law requires therapists and social workers to report to county mental health directors whether they believe a patient is dangerous.  That information will go into a state data base, which would be used to confiscate gun owners’ weapons.

mental_health-220x120I would not go to a therapist if I did not think I could trust him or her to keep what I confided in confidence.  I would not trust a therapist if I thought the therapist was going to report what I said to the police.  The unintended consequence of such a law is that people most in need of therapy will not seek it.

Human beings have free will.  That means human behavior is unpredictable.  But New York state law puts the burden of predicting human behavior on therapists, but does not allow them to use their own judgment as to what to do.  A therapist has options if a patient seems dangerously violent—to increase the patient’s medications, to notify people who may be at-risk, to start proceedings to have the patient committed to a mental institution and, yes, to notify the police if that seems necessary.

Simply by the law of averages, someday somebody who is in therapy is going to commit a violent crime with a gun.  No therapist wants to be in the position of not having notified the authorities in advance that the person is dangerous.  The incentive will be to notify the authorities even if there is only a slight possibility of danger.

A conservative friend of mine pointed out that the same incentive applies to prosecutors and judges, and is nothing new.  But prosecutors and judges have to justify their decisions by actual evidence.  Therapists make a subjective judgment and don’t have to prove they’re right.

Even if there were an accurate predictive science of psychology, as in the movie and Philip K. Dick short story “Minority Report”, there still would be a problem in denying you of your legal rights not because of what you had done, but because of what someone thinks you might do.  There are people in prison who have served their sentences, but who are not released because some psychiatrist thinks the person will be a recidivist.

The basic principle of liberty under law, as affirmed in England’s Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1688 and the U.S. Constitution in Article One, Section 9, is that the government can punish you only if you have broken a law and that you have a right to know the specific law you are accused of breaking.  Another principle of liberty under law is presumption of innocence.  The prosecution has to prove you have broken the law.

When we look at the old Soviet Union, and how psychiatry was abused to punish political dissidents who had broken no law, we ought to be wary of making therapists agents of the police.


Click on NY Gun Law May Discourage Mental Health Therapy for Those Who Need It for a report by CBS News.

A new New Year’s resolution

January 18, 2013

resolutionClick on xkcd for more Randall Munroe cartoons.

Is there a right to freedom from guns?

January 18, 2013

Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo doesn’t own guns, doesn’t like guns and resents the aggressiveness of the “gun culture”—people such as Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, who think the solution to gun violence is as armed citizenry.  He wrote the following earlier this week in defense of the values of the “non-gun tribe.”

… … Do I want to have people carrying firearms out and about where I live my life — at the store, the restaurant, at my kid’s playground?  No, the whole idea is alien and frankly scary.  Because remember, guns are extremely efficient tools for killing people and people get weird and do stupid things.

bildeA big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural.  And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas.  And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country.  So we’re upset about massacres so the answer is more guns.  Arming everybody. 

There’s a lot of bogus research (widely discredited) purporting to show that if we were all armed we’d all be safer through a sort of mutually assured destruction, pervasive deterrence.  As I said, the research appears to be bogus.  But even if it was possible that we could be just as safe with everyone armed as no one armed, I’d still want no one armed.  Not at my coffee shop or on the highway or wherever.  Because I don’t want to carry a gun.  And I don’t want to be around armed people.

via TPM Editors Blog.

I feel the same way Marshall does.  I don’t own a firearm and, if I did, I wouldn’t carry it around in public.   I don’t want to have to be constantly thinking about whether the person next to me is a threat, or the circumstances in which I needed to use deadly force.

Like Marshall, I recognize that there is a right to own guns, and that there are valid reasons why people might want to own guns.  I have no problem with someone who has a gun at home for hunting or in their home or place of business for self-protection.  I can see why someone might want to carry a gun in public for self-protection.

I think gun prohibition is a terrible idea.  The Branch Davidian massacre and the Ruby Ridge tragedy were the results of misguided attempts to enforce federal gun laws.

On the other hand I have no problem with the fact that you can’t bring a gun onto an airplane or into a federal building, or, in many places, within the vicinity of a public school.  I think the Obama administration made a mistake in deciding to allow concealed weapons in national parks.  I wish the President would issue an executive order rescinding that decision.

bushmaster-man-card-bannerWhat I do have a problem with is people who own guns as a form of self-expression.  I don’t personally know anybody who owns a large individual arsenal, but my impression is that, for most of such people, their stockpile of firearms is primarily a statement of who they are and what their values are, rather than for personal use.

Gun control is a symbolic issue.  President Obama’s proposals, and the legislation enacted with lightning speed here in New York state here this past week, are a way for Obama and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to affirm that they have more sympathy for what Josh Marshall calls the non-gun tribe than for the pro-gun tribe.   Sometimes there is a need for symbolic actions to reassure the public.  Whether these actions—such as New York state’s limitation of seven rounds to a magazine—will have any practical effect is another question.


Click on Being Part of the Non-Gun Tribe and Guns Kill People for Josh Marshall’s full comments on TPM Editors Blog.


Gun control and security theater

January 17, 2013


I think President Obama’s executive orders and proposed legislation are what is called “security theater”—actions intended to make Americans feel safer whether or not they actually make them safer.

I don’t have any great objection to what he proposes. but I don’t see that they’ll make any great difference one way or the other.

Some problems don’t have a governmental solution.  Some problems don’t have a solution.

As the great H.L. Mencken once said, “The fact that I have no panacea for the world’s ills is no reason why I should accept yours.  It merely increases the likelihood that yours is a fake.”


Click on President Obama’s New, Proposed Executive Orders and Legislation on Guns for a summary.

Then click on Gun Rhetoric vs. Gun Facts for analysis of gun crime statistics by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and decide what impact you think the President’s proposals would have.

Click on President Obama’s Missing Executive Order on Gun Control for a Rolling Stone article about the President’s failure to use legislated authority to prohibit imports of dangerous weapons not suited for use by hunters and sportsmen.

Click on Background check system for guns deeply flawed for analysis by the Los Angeles Times.